Saturday Night At The Movies: Double Feature

He Sees Red People

By Dennis Hartley

L.A. filmmaker Michael Shea reacted like a lot of us did in the immediate aftermath of Junior’s 2004 reelection; he faced the East (i.e., toward the nearest “red state”), cast himself upon the ground, turned his gaze heavenward and uttered mankind’s most venerated and time-honored rhetorical question: “WTF?!” What he did next, however was a little different from the rest of us (which in my case was retreating to the couch and cradling a pint of Cherry Garcia while tearfully watching a “West Wing” marathon). He shaved his beard, cut his hair, grabbed a camera and hopped in his car, heading for the nearest red state to find out exactly what the hell those people actually WERE thinking. The result was a 2005 documentary called (appropriately enough) Red State

So what were they thinking? If you’re squeamish, leave the room now, because what Mr. Shea learned will scare the bejesus out of you. Shea is barely into the first leg of the journey that will take him through a whirlwind 22-state tour when he hits paydirt-an interview with a creepily smiling fundamentalist church leader who says that he prefers to think of the “red” in the red states as “the blood of Christ”. And he’s just warming up.

While a large chunk of Shea’s journey deep into America’s heartland of darkness amounts to a somewhat sobering reality check for a smug knee-jerk liberal like myself, there are a few moments of unintentional levity that shine a little light into the gloom. Perhaps the best example is an interview with a conservative Christian lobbyist named (ready for this?) Wendy Christian (you couldn’t make this shit up). When asked for her take on America’s polarized political climate, she likens it to an episode of “Leave It To Beaver”. Ms. Christian explains it thusly: Ward is the Law, June is the Government, Wally represents the typical God-fearing, law-abiding citizen, and the Beav…well, the Beav as we all know, is the Troublemaker. When pressed for more specifics on exactly who the Beav represents, Christian pauses a beat and says. “Well…he’s the Liberals.” Your first reaction is of course to laugh, but then it hits you-this is how many of these people actually perceive the state of our Union, and you become very, very frightened.

To his credit, Shea keeps a fairly objective tone throughout, although you can see that it eventually becomes a real struggle for him as the relentless rhetoric of right-wing Christian conservatism and rote Dittohead regurgitation he continually encounters begins to take its psychic toll. Shea’s generally low key and affable, self-effacing demeanor seems to put most of his subjects at ease and is probably what saves him from running screaming into the sunset. Parts of the film (especially a jag through Texas) began to remind me of David Byrne’s 1984 “mockumentary” True Stories, which in a strange way now seems like an oddly prescient future echo of Shea’s real life version of a “blue-stater” doing an anthropological dig into the “red-stater” psyche. See it if you dare.

Give yourself a real red scare: Where Are We?: Our Trip Through America,The Apostle , Jesus Camp, CSA: The Confederate States of America, and a forgotten gem just begging for a DVD release: WUSA.

And now for something completely different...

Divine Trash, Hidden Jewels-Part 1

This marks the debut of a series that I will post on occasion, which will put the spotlight on some films you may have missed, and that your humble reviewer thinks are worth the search and a peek on a slow night. Hope you enjoy!

This week I’m featuring two relatively recent “rockumentaries” of merit, both available on DVD. First up is “The Devil and Daniel Johnston”. Iconoclastic musician Daniel Johnston’s life story is a documentary filmmaker’s wet dream-a tragicomic Grimm’s fairy tale version of the American Success Story that plays like a cross between “DiG!” and “Grey Gardens”.

Throughout most of the 1980’s, Johnston’s prodigious output of homemade, self-distributed cassettes went largely unnoticed until they were famously championed by Kurt Cobain, who helped make the unsigned artist a “household name” of sorts in alt/underground music circles.

Johnston has waged an internal battle between inspired creativity and mental illness for most of his life (not unlike Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Roky Erikson and Joe Meek). The filmmakers recount a series of apocryphal stories about how Johnston, like Chance the Gardener in “Being There”, stumbles innocently and repeatedly into the right place at the right time, steadily amassing a sizeable grass roots following. Everything appears to be set in place for his Big Break, until an ill-advised tryst with hallucinogenic substances sends him (literally) spiraling into complete madness. While on a private plane flight with his pilot father, Johnston has a sudden epiphany that he is Casper the Friendly Ghost, and decides to wrest the controls, causing the plane to crash. Both men walk away relatively unscathed, but Daniel is soon afterwards committed to a mental hospital.

The story becomes even more surreal, as Johnston is finally “discovered” by the major labels, who engage in a bidding war while their potential client is still residing in the laughing house (only in America). The rest, as they say, is History.

The film also delves briefly into Johnston’s childlike, strangely compelling drawings and paintings, which, in my personal observation, oddly recall the work of the bizarre, posthumously discovered artist Henry Darger (the subject of an equally fascinating documentary called “In the Realms of the Unreal”). By turns disturbing, darkly humorous, sad, and inspiring, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is a must-see.

Mayor of the Sunset Strip” is another worthwhile rock doc for your consideration. This alternately exhilarating/melancholy portrait of L.A. music scene fixture Rodney Bingenheimer was directed by George Hickenlooper, who most recently helmed the Edie Sedgwick biopic, “Factory Girl”.

The diminutive, skittish and soft-spoken Bingenheimer comes off like Andy Warhol’s west coast doppelganger, or perhaps the Forest Gump of rock and roll. Somehow, he has been able to plant himself squarely in the hurricane’s eye of every major music “scene” since the mid-60’s from Monkeemania (he worked a brief stint as Davy Jones’ double!) to present-day (becoming the first radio DJ to “break” current superstars Coldplay).

Although the film is ostensibly “about” Rodney, it is ultimately a whirlwind time trip through rock music’s evolution, filtered through a coked-out L.A. haze. The ongoing photo montages of Rodney posing with an A-Z roster of every major figure in rock’n’roll history recalls Woody Allen’s fictional Alfred Zelig, a nondescript milquetoast who could morph himself into complete simpatico with whomever he was with at the time.

Throughout the course of the film, Rodney himself remains a bit of a cipher; in one very telling scene he fidgets nervously and begs Hickenlooper to turn off the camera when the questions get too “close”. There is also a sad irony on display-despite his ability to attract the company of the rich and famous (and they all appear to adore the man), the fruits of fame and success evade Rodney himself. He drives a “beater” to his DJ gig at L.A.’s legendary KROQ; he lives alone in a cluttered little hovel, where treasured memorabilia like Elvis Presley’s first driver’s license (!) collects dust next to the ubiquitous empty pizza boxes. This begs the question: At the end of the day, is he a true “ rock impresario”, or just a glorified Rupert Pupkin?

The film is peppered with appearances and comments from the likes of music producer Kim Fowley (whose own whacked-out rock’n’roll career contains enough fodder for a whole other documentary), Pamela des Barres (legendary ex-super groupie and former member of Frank Zappa protégés The GTO’s) and her husband, actor-musician Michael des Barres (who steals the show with some priceless backstage tales). Brilliant!